The making of the March to Dandi

How to move the masses

Mahatma Gandhi and his companions began walking towards Dandi on March 12, 1930. Here are some excerpts from Thomas Weber’s remarkable On the Salt March – The historiography of Mahatma Gandhi’s march to Dandi that illuminate the logic, planning and strategy that went into it.

Before salt was seized upon as the issue for the campaign, Gandhi had come around to believing that while salt in excess may be harmful, a tax is no way to teach moderation…The poor, he claimed, need more salt that they eat and their cattle need more than impoverished farmer can afford. This along with the question of the right of a foreign government to tax a naturally occurring substance became the key issues in the salt debate.

It is quite probable that the final decision to make the salt tax the focus of the agitation came when the “Monograph on Common Salt” produced by the (Federation) of Indian Chambers of Commerce fell into Gandhi’s hands. The brief of the monograph was to examine “the great possibility of making Indian self-contained in her supply of salt.” In the course of presenting its case the document went into great detail tracing the history of the salt revenue in India. It was resplendent with well argued propositions that would have been useful in helping to make up an indecisive mind. The topics touched on included “Rationale of Salt Eating”, “More Salt Needed in the Tropics” and “A Poor Man Needs More Salt than a Rich One”. Mahadev Desai’s article in Navajivan of 2 March 1930 closely followed the arguments of the monograph and already a week before that date the monograph was recommended to Congressmen by Jawaharlal Nehru in a circular to Provincial Congress Committees.

Four days before the (Dandi) March commenced, in a speech at Ahmedabad, Gandhi told his audience that, “I want to deprive the government of its illegitimate monopoly of salt. My aim is to get the salt tax abolished. That is for me one step, the first step, towards full freedom.”

In reality the tax was relatively small and there was no popular mass agitation for its repeal. The breaking of laws against salt did not appear to be the stuff of a struggle for national independence. Motilal Nehru was amused and perhaps even angered by the irrelevance of Gandhi’s move. Indulal Yajnik, (a Gujarati radical), asked “Wouldn’t the Salt Campaign…fail to arouse the enthusiasm of the youth of the nation? Wouldn’t they all see through the farce of wielding a sledge hammer—of satyagraha—to kill the fly of the Salt Act?” But Gandhi knew the mind of rural India better than any of them.

The action that Gandhi planned was largely symbolic—the salt produced by illicit means would be impure and probably unpalatable, but it was breaking a British law which earned rulers money at the expense of the masses. The taking of salt was…the taking of power away from the rulers. It was a symbol of revolt and a very practical symbol at that.

Gandhi expected a long drawn-out movement during which a large mass of people had to be mobilised so the method of struggle needed to be a simple one, one capable of generating emotional feelings and one which everyone could understand everyone, down to the humblest peasant, could participate in. It also had to be a means of action that the government could not prevent in its early stages…Furthermore an attack on the salt tax did not threaten Indian vested interests and so was not alienating the non-Congress supporters.

The authorities were waiting for the March to fail; Gandhi and his supporters had to ensure that it did not. The careful selection of the route was one way to help facilitate the materialisation of the desired outcome. The students of the nationalist university at Ahmedabad, the Gujarat Vidyapith, under the direction of Kakasaheb Kalelkar were deeply involved in the planning stages. A team led by Narhari Parikh search books and records for information on salt and the Salt Laws and then channelled the material back to Mahadev Desai for use in his articles and Gandhi’s correspondence with the Government. Another group, led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, undertook an economic survey of the Matar taluka, the first area the March would pass through after leaving Ahmedabad…Ravishankar Maharaj scouted the area around the Dharasana saltworks and reported back to Gandhi before the March got under way.

Gandhi insisted that (women) stay behind at the Ashram. He explained “Women will have enough opportunity to offer satyagraha. Just as Hindus do not harm a cow, the British do not attack women as far as possible. For Hindus it would be cowardice to take a cow to the battlefield. In the same way it would be cowardice to have women accompany us”

Possibly the strangest inclusion (into the list of Marchers) was Haridas Muzumdar. Muzumdar had lived much of his life in the U.S.A. as a scholar and teacher and propagandist for the cause of Indian independence…It appears that Muzumdar, who was often to prove something of an odd man out during the journey, was included partially for political reasons—Gandhi liked his propaganda work and approved of the Gandhi biography he had written.

(The list of Marchers included one person from Fiji—“originally of U.P. but born in Fiji”—and one from Nepal. There were two Muslims, one Christian and the remaining 76 were Hindus. There were 12 graduates: 7 of Bombay University, 3 of Gujarat Vidyapith and 2 of foreign Universities).] Most of the Marchers to be were between twenty and twenty-five years.) [Thomas Weber, On the Salt March pp 89-121]

Periyar, Bhagat Singh, untouchability and poverty

And a very faulty analogy

In a piece commemorating Bhagat Singh’s hanging by the colonial British government, historian Irfan Habib describes how the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu interpreted his politics. Bhagat Singh’s views on the political use of religion struck a chord down south. As did his economics.

Periyar wrote further in the editorial that “to abolish untouchability we have to abolish the principle of upper and lower castes. In the same manner, to remove poverty we have to do away with the principle of capitalists and wage-earners. So socialism and communism are nothing but getting rid of these concepts and systems. These are the principles Bhagat Singh stood for.” [The Hindu]

The fallacy should be clear: one cannot change one’s caste, but one can get richer.

Now it is possible to argue, with some justification, that the social structure and colonial policies made it practically impossible for people of the early decades of the 20th century to break out of poverty. But the analogy was philosophically wrong then, as it is now. Economic fortunes of people did change, albeit very slowly. Instead of calling for economic freedom and individual liberty that would create avenues for upward mobility that generation of leaders fell for the easy seduction of Socialism and Communism.

Those short-cuts didn’t work. The tragedy is that almost a century later, with abundant empirical evidence that these short-cuts are cul-de-sacs, India’s leaders still fall for the same faulty premise.